The Anti–Road Trip of an Indian American Photographer

Traveling the US from West to East, Miraj Patel inserts himself into landscapes charged with history and symbolism.

How a Photographer's Fictional Self-Portraits Defy the White Gaze
Miraj Patel, Back East, 2021, for Aperture

Featured – November 23, 2021

By Kamayani Sharma

Then the pulse.
Then a pause.
Then twilight in a box.
Dusk underfoot.
Then generations.

—Srikanth Reddy, “Burial Practice,” Facts for Visitors

Miraj Patel is running from water. His latest photographic series, Back East (2021), made during a cross-country journey from California to Connecticut earlier this year, is a reclamation of space in his homeland. “It’s the anti-road trip,” Patel, an MFA student at Yale, tells me, describing his project as being grounded in “the reversal of the movement from the East to the Great West”—an advancement mythologized in the American imagination as being in the direction of hope and success. For the first generation Indian American, eastward travel became an expedition toward the Old World, an attempt to orient himself to an ancestral “Eastern” homeland while remaining in the natal “Western” one.

Comprising staged portraits that Patel made of himself and his partner at the time, and composites of found objects cathected with his memories and interpretations of his parents’ culture, the series involves a racially charged narrative fiction that Patel wanted to “remain unresolved, to defy the white gaze.” In recent years, the desire for self-representation has been vociferously articulated by immigrant and diaspora artists of color in the United States. Discussing the series as a process of working out of his identity, Patel notes that he was motivated to insert himself into the landscape and lore of a country that he simultaneously belonged to and felt erased in: “Indian people have no representation—I have no history here.”

Patel’s previous series It Feels This Way (2020) tackles this yearning for a rootedness head-on. Showing his California-based family’s domestic life, the photographs bring to mind Gauri Gill’s The Americans (2000–2007), a germinal document of Indian American life. However, as Bakirathi Mani argues in Unseeing Empire: Photography, Representation, South Asian America (2020), her book on South Asian American photography (which includes description of Gill’s series): “The problem of representation cannot be resolved through the greater visibility of the racialized subject . . . [it] is itself constituted by colonial histories of documentation and surveillance.” Patel cites as an influence Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s practice, which is invested in this very critique of the apparatus of photography. Wolukau-Wanambwa’s photobook One Wall a Web (2018) interrogates—via portraiture, urbanscape photography, and the repurposing of found negatives—geography, corporeality, and the archive to expose the discontents of racial, gender, and economic representation in the US.

In Back East, part of which he made in Connecticut at Grove Street Cemetery, the oldest burial ground in the US, Patel draws on the register of irony. Sprinting in a kurta along the coast, standing in for a statue of the nineteenth-century New Haven mayor Henry G. Lewis, posing in the style of an old Hollywood glamour shot, he evokes the haunting in a scary movie to capture the experience of being caught between places and times. This isn’t just representation; it’s a reconstitution of the American desi in terms that are conscious and critical of the overwhelming whiteness and West-ness (as a settler-colonial and postcolonial category) of the American visual regime.

The frustration of unbelonging plays out in a quadrant of photos that each feature a mehendi-decorated hand—fisted, splayed out, and curved into a claw. The work is reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s video series For Beginners (instructed piano) (2010), which depicts thirty-one finger combinations as an homage to Nauman’s memory of teaching his son how to play the piano. Patel’s recollections of his childhood were more fraught: he grew up seeing his mother dance, positioning her hands in the various mudras of classical Indian choreography. His inability to comprehend these gestures—important in the cultural schema of his parents—compounded the sense of “not feeling a place.”

The tight frames and medium-format camera Patel used to compose the photographs in Back East resulted in a shallow depth of field and a flatness that emphasize their playfulness and performativity. Filters and lighting—both strobe and natural—are important for Patel in constructing the spooky artifice of his images. Perhaps this theater serves as metaphor for being a brown body navigating white society: “Even as a photographer, I play a role, become a spectacle in my own way,” he says.

Miraj Patel’s photographs were created using a FUJIFILM GFX100S with a FUJINON GF80mmF1.7R WR lens and FUJIFILM Shoe Mount Flash EF-60.

All photographs by Miraj Patel from the series Back East, 2021, for Aperture
Courtesy the artist

Kamayani Sharma is a writer based in New Delhi.

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